All you have to do is ask

What do CEOs and new hires have in common?

A reluctance to ask for help.

CEOs and senior executives want to demonstrate that they are in control. To ask for help, they think, may make them look weak. New hires don’t want to appear “stupid,” so they stay still.

The failure to ask for help has dire consequences. For an executive, an inability to ask for assistance can derail a project, perhaps fatally. For a new hire, reluctance to ask for guidance can mean toiling in the dark and potentially ending with doing things wrong.

Wayne Baker itemizes this reluctance to ask for assistance in his new book "All You Have to Do Is Ask." He attributes multiple reasons:

  • Underestimating other people’s willingness to help
  • Overreliance on self-reliance
  • Perception of social cost, e.g., "I will be stupid," as noted above
  • Lack of psychological safety, e.g., the permissiveness to ask for assistance
  • Systems and bureaucracy get in the way
  • Lack of knowing how to ask for help or the “privilege” of asking for help;
  • Fear of appearing selfish, e.g., a person out for himself

Baker, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, takes apart each of these excuses in ways that enable individuals to feel good, as well as confident, about asking for help.

In an email interview with me, Baker said, “When we are taught that it is better to give than receive, we carry that belief with us into organizations.  Incentive systems that measure and reward individual achievements make it harder to ask for what you need.

“Everyone needs the inflow of information, knowledge, ideas, advice, etc. Because help is given only when it is asked for, you have to ask for what you need," Baker says. "When you make SMART requests, you are likely to get positive responses. When you are generous and give help, others will want to help you.” [SMART refers to Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-related.]

Asking for help can be similar to preparing for an interview or a presentation. “You have to be clear on why you are making the request, the goal you are trying to achieve, and use SMART criteria,” says Baker. “All this takes some preparation before you make the ask.”


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Teams can ask for help, too. For example, teammates can help one another. “High-performance teams have positive norms of asking for and giving help," Baker says. "Team members freely help one another and freely ask for what they need from one another.”

Teams can also look outside their own members. “These teams also have good external connections, and team members will make requests from those outside the team to get the resources the team needs," Baker says. "In short, high-performance teams have positive internal and external networks.”

Seeking assistance is not a sign of weakness. It's an indication of political savviness. That is, you know that you do not have all the answers, and as such, you are willing to find out more. You become a problem-solver.

Importantly, for a person in power, asking for help does two things. One, it indicates vulnerability, e.g., I don't know all the answers. Two, it demonstrates courage, e.g., I am not afraid to ask for help. Good leaders surround themselves with people smarter than themselves, and in doing so, these people become the go-to sources for information and assistance.

One of my favorite philosophers, Dolly Parton, entertainer and philanthropist, once said, “I'm trying my best to keep up with all this new technology, and I surround myself with all these wonderful people that are in the know and kind of help me out with all that.”

Substitute the word "new ideas" for "technology," and you have the secret to asking for help. Make friends with people who know things, and together you will succeed. All you need to do is ask.

 

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, Inc.com named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2019, Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including“MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, "GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us." Learn more about why he wrote "GRACE" in this short video.

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